SI Vault
 
THEIR FINEST HOURS
Kenny Moore
August 04, 1980
In the span of a single day Britain ruled the Moscow Games by capturing the 100 and 800 meters and decathlon
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 04, 1980

Their Finest Hours

In the span of a single day Britain ruled the Moscow Games by capturing the 100 and 800 meters and decathlon

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue

Nikolai Kirov had one chance and he knew it. The jostling pack of nervous Olympic 800-meter finalists had passed 400 meters in a disappointingly slow 54.5 seconds. Around the first turn of the last lap, Kirov, a short man, ran outside the elbows of the leaders, Agberto Guimares of Brazil and David Warren of Great Britain. He knew that Warren's more celebrated compatriots, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, were close behind him, and if he waited until the homestretch to kick, they would outsprint him. He also knew that if he kicked on the backstretch with 250 meters to go, he would probably die in the last 50 meters. These were the Moscow Olympics. Kirov is a Soviet citizen. He kicked on the backstretch.

Kirov flew ahead at a point just beneath the windblown Olympic flame, and as he built his lead to two meters and then three, those in the crowd rooting for the U.S.S.R., perhaps 80,000 of the 100,000 filling the great bowl of Lenin Stadium, emitted a deep-throated roar, a sound subtly different from mass expressions of delight and encouragement in Western stadiums. There seemed a hunger in it, a more visceral need, because during the first three days of track and field competition in these boycott-thinned Olympics, the Soviets' men's team and that of East Germany had not conducted their expected dual meet for the majority of the medals. Instead, a remarkable British team, perhaps the United Kingdom's strongest in Olympic history, had stood out as an island of eccentric individualism in a stolid, Eastern-bloc sea.

No Briton had won the Olympic 100-meter dash since Harold Abrahams did it in 1924. But when Allan Wells of Scotland, 28, a former long jumper trained in good part by his wife, Margot, won his quarterfinal in 10.11—a race in which defending champion Hasely Crawford of Trinidad was eliminated—he seemed to have a solid chance against Silvio Leonard of Cuba.

The final was run into a cold, gusting wind that shifted so often the flags at the stadium were furled about their poles. Leonard drew Lane 1; Crawford had won from there in Montreal. Wells was all the way across the track in Lane 8. Feeling that the wind was stronger on the outside, Wells bent into the blocks with anger. "The British always seem to draw the worst lanes," he said later.

The stadium was noisy because an event beloved among the Soviets, the triple jump, was in its last round. Once, Leonard, unable to hear the starter, rocked back and pointed across the track at the disturbance. Then the sprinters settled in once more. Before they came to the set position, another great cheer went up. On his last try the U.S.S.R.'s Viktor Saneyev had nearly equaled Al Oerter's record of winning a gold medal in four straight Olympics; he came up 4½" short and had to settle for the silver behind teammate Jaak Uudmae, who jumped 56'11¼".

Any other starter would have called the sprinters up to relax and stretch while they waited for calm. This one kept them coiled in their crouch. It was a time for poise, and Wells had it. When the gun finally sounded he was away powerfully. After 50 meters he and Leonard were roughly even, having left the field a yard behind. Then Leonard seemed to float for a few strides. "I wasn't very attentive for a while," he would admit later. Wells crept into a slight lead.

Then Leonard came back. With five meters to go, Wells' margin had all but disappeared. He leaned desperately. Leonard didn't bother.

"God, I don't think I've done it," thought Wells as he slowed, seeing cameramen converge on the Cuban. But Leonard, even though he had raised a hand in triumph, wasn't sure either. Both would be given the same time, 10.25. Now they watched the grainy TV replay on the scoreboard. Wells' lean had brought his shoulders to the line just ahead of Leonard's chest.

"There is a Scottish tradition of banging heads in the pubs on Saturday night when looped," said Margot as her husband took a victory lap. "It's called nutting. You try to get your forehead down and break the other man's nose. That must be the training that won it for him."

Soviet hopes in the decathlon were dashed by another blithe British spirit, one Daley Thompson. The son of a Nigerian mother and a Scottish father, Thompson gave up a promising career in soccer as a youth to concentrate on track, won the British Commonwealth Games decathlon in 1978 and just this May in Gotzis, Austria added five points to Bruce Jenner's world record with a score of 8,622. West Germany's Guido Kratschmer subsequently raised the record to 8,649, but seeing that Kratschmer was a casualty of the boycott, Thompson's confidence, which was supreme, hardly seemed misplaced. "Well, I've been training for this for five years," he said. "I ought to be good at it."

Continue Story
1 2 3